President Bush's new "Clear Skies" initiative on global warming has sparked new debate in the United States. Environmental groups say the Bush plan does not go far enough toward reducing global emissions and places the United States behind other nations committed to the Kyoto protocol on global climate change.

Even before President Bush announced his new proposals in a speech outside Washington, environmental groups were quick to dismiss the plan, calling it "too little, too late", "woefully inadequate", and likely to increase U.S. gas emissions contributing to global warming.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said while other nations move toward ratifying the Kyoto protocol, requiring mandatory reductions by 2012, the Bush plan points the United States in the wrong direction. Jennifer Morgan, director of the WWF Climate Change Campaign, says, "The Bush administration, by putting forth this type of proposal, remains quite isolated, very isolated, from the rest of the world in taking climate change seriously."

Under the Kyoto agreement, industrialized nations would be required to reduce, between 2008 and 2012, emissions of gases contributing to global warming to below 1990 levels.

President Bush said the United States remains committed to what he calls the "central goal" of the Kyoto accord - stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions. The White House says decreasing what it calls the "intensity" of greenhouse gases, by 18 percent over 12 years, compares favorably to mandatory goals in the Kyoto protocol.

Underpinning Mr. Bush's rejection last year of the Kyoto accord was an economic theme, one he returned to in his speech Thursday, that agreeing to mandatory reductions would harm the U.S. economy.

"The approach taken under the Kyoto protocol would have required the United States to make deep and immediate cuts in our economy to meet an arbitrary target," said Mr. Bush. "It would have cost our economy up to $400 billion and we would have lost 4.9 million jobs."

In the view of Gregg Easterbrook, a specialist on international environmental issues at the Brookings Institution, Mr. Bush's proposal contains very little that is new. "It is remarkably similar to President Clinton's voluntary compliance plans," he said. "Under the Clinton administration, greenhouse emissions by the United States increased by almost 12 percent. So voluntary compliance didn't work for Clinton, I don't see any reason why it's going to work for President Bush."

President Bush says he will discuss his new initiative during his upcoming talks in Japan, China and South Korea.

Jane Morgan, of the World Wildlife Fund, notes that other countries are moving toward ratification. "The prime minister of Japan, when he opened the diet [Japanese parliament] session a week ago, stated that he wanted the protocol to be ratified this session," said Ms. Morgan. "The European Union has stated its intent to ratify by June, and Russia will be discussing that this Spring. So those countries could basically alone make this protocol international law by the time countries join together at the big summit on the environment and development in South Africa in September."

Joining criticism of the Bush plan is another U.S. environmental group, the Sierra Club. For Debbie Boger, senior Sierra Club Washington representative, president is not serious about the problem of global warming. "Probably the most serious flaw in his proposal is that he asks for voluntary reductions in global warming pollution and we have seen time and time again that voluntary reductions do not work," she said. "What we need is mandatory global warming reductions."

President Bush, and other administration officials, telephoned a number of world leaders ahead of the announcement, including Spain's prime minister, who holds the rotating EU presidency. The EU sharply criticized Mr. Bush last year when he rejected the Kyoto treaty.

Mr. Bush says future decisions dealing with climate change should be made on what he calls "sound science" rather than "what sounds good." If by 2012 progress is not sufficient, he says, the United States can take additional voluntary measures.

However, environmental groups and other critics say voluntary measures are exactly what will lead to increased U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.